College & Workforce Readiness

College Board Unveils ‘Draft’ Materials for New SAT

By Caralee J. Adams — April 22, 2014 5 min read
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After outlining the big-picture redesign of the SAT last month, the College Board filled in the details last week with sample questions and information about the new scoring system.

The New York City-based nonprofit organization that administers the 88-year-old college-entrance exam unveiled a preview of the test specifications. However, Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the chief of assessment, said the materials were “drafts” and subject to change before the new SAT is introduced in spring 2016.

“We are taking a risk, albeit almost two years before the introduction,” she said. “But we want to inform students, teachers, administrators, and higher ed. folks well in advance of the first administration so they do know what to expect and they can plan for it.”

One of the first things students will notice on the new test is that there are four answers to choose from, rather than five. College Board research found the fifth answer added little to the measurement value of the questions and, in some cases, actually detracted from the quality of the question content.

Scores also will be based only on the number of questions test-takers answer correctly, to discourage “extraneous test-taking strategies” and encourage students to give the best answer they have for every question without fear of being penalized, according to the College Board.

The redesigned exam is estimated to take three hours, with a 50-minute optional essay section. The current test is three hours and 45 minutes, including a 25-minute required essay.

Results will be reported differently in the future. The composite scores will include evidence-based reading and writing, which will be the sum of the reading-test score and the writing- and language-test score; and mathematics. Each of the two area scores will range from 200 to 800, returning a perfect SAT score to 1600. The optional essay will be scored separately.

Test specifications include cross-test scores analyzing history/social studies text and science text, as well as multiple subscores in each area. For instance, in the reading and writing and language tests, students will receive a subscore for command of evidence and relevant words in context.

“This will be tremendously helpful to start to move the SAT from being a status measure to being learning actionable information,” said David Conley, the chief executive officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, or EPIC, at the University of Oregon.

Ms. Schmeiser described the SAT as an “achievement test,” based on research, and meant to incorporate what students are learning in challenging high school coursework.

Common-Core Alignment

Though not directly stated, the redesigned SAT reflects the Common Core State Standards. The announcement this spring did not specify the common core, but College Board officials have said it is aligning the exam to the best of state standards, and David Coleman had committed to aligning the SAT with the standards when he took over as president in 2012. (Mr. Coleman was one of the chief writers of the common core.)

For example, it will require students to cite evidence in support of their understanding of texts in reading and writing. Students will have to analyze and synthesize words and numbers, using informational graphics. The math section will focus on fewer topics, but ones that are critical to college and career success.

David Bressoud, a former president of the Mathematical Association of America who served on the College Board Mathematics Sciences Academic Advisory Committee, said the approach is a move away from general math aptitude to include real-world scenarios.

For instance, a question may describe a hotel bill for a certain number of nights with sales tax and an extra fee and have students choose what equations to apply to solve it.

“It’s not just doing a standard math problem, it’s understanding how math is used,” Mr. Bressoud said.

The updated SAT won’t ask for definitions of obscure words but asks about use of a word in the context of a passage. One sample question has students respond to the meaning of the word “intense” in an economics text where it means “concentrated.”

The draft reading test asks students about what is implied in texts across a range of content areas and has them determine which portion best supports the answer to a given question.

In the writing and language section, test-takers are asked to develop, support, and refine claims in multiparagraph passages—some with accompanying graphics—and to add, revise, or delete information.

“I think there will be a lot of implications for instruction in high school. It’s an encouragement for teachers to go deeper and give students time to think,” Mr. Conley of epic said.

The essay now has more structure. Students will have to analyze a passage and explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience through the use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive devices.

Staying Competitive

The new exam “hits all the current fads and buzzwords: critical thinking, higher-order thinking, 21st-century skills, real-life, authentic,” just as the common core and other assessments do, said Mark Schneider, a vice president and fellow at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington.

It is clear that the College Board wants to drive curriculum, and there is a business angle to the redesign, Mr. Schneider added. The changes are fueled, in part, by the College Board’s concern about a growth in the number of schools making college-entrance exams optional and the expansion of the ACT, among other market pressures, he said.

Paul Weeks, a vice president at ACT Inc., said its college-entrance exam has always been curriculum-based, and it has no plans to do anything in response to the College Board’s announcement. “It’s a reinforcement of what we have been doing,” he said, adding that ACT has its own continuous improvement agenda based on curriculum surveys. ACT test specifications are available on the organization’s website.

Jim Rawlins, the director of admissions at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, and a former president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, said that despite the update, the SAT remains high-stakes, stressful for most students, and, ultimately, has a sorting function in the admissions process. Still, “it has never been the main way that colleges determine our admissions decisions. It is a supporting piece of information,” he said.

Said Mr. Schneider: “Ultimately, the question is whether this will really predict college readiness and success. We won’t know that for years.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as College Board Unveils ‘Draft’ Materials for Redesigned SAT


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